David McLetchie with Iain Duncan Smith
The Caledonian Mercury has invited some of those in the election firing-line to send regular bulletins about the personal side of campaigning. David McLetchie is a former leader of the Scottish Conservatives and is standing for re-election in Edinburgh Pentlands.
Tuesday 29 March
Amazing how fast things can change in politics. This morning we are licking our media wounds from our candidate problems in Glasgow, but by tonight everyone is talking about Annabel [Goldie]‘s excellent performance in the STV leaders’ debate, where she and Alex Salmond outclassed their rivals and her no-nonsense straight-talking style won plaudits even from the non-Tories.
Sometimes you just have to brush off these little local difficulties which obsess the political village but have scant impact with real people, and get on with putting out our message. That is exactly what she did, to a T. Of course it is never wise for other parties to crow or delight in the internal difficulties of opponents, because sure as guns it will happen to you.
Right on cue, Hugh O’Donnell defects from the Lib Dems and denounces the coalition government at Westminster. Over to you, Tavish.
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As it happens, I am on Newsnicht with George Lyon who is the campaign manager for the Lib Dems, so our respective candidate woes get an airing before we get on to the Westminster impact on the Scottish election and in particular the increased tax on North Sea oil production which is paying for the fuel duty reductions – announced in the budget – and the stabiliser.
Given the soaring price of oil, I think the oil companies are crying wolf and say so. The priority is to help our motorists across the whole of Scotland and the rest of the UK, which is what Osborne has done. Good for him.
Nominations close today. Four candidates in my Edinburgh Pentlands constituency, which is what I expected. Out delivering my introductory leaflet to constituents, which is focused on my record as their MSP for the last eight years.
I won the seat from the present Labour leader Iain Gray in the 2003 election. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. He missed out on the 2003–07 parliament, but steadily climbed through the Labour ranks working as a special advisor to Alistair Darling, whose star was also in the Labour ascendant.
Result – Iain gets a safe Labour seat in East Lothian in 2007, he and his wife Gill move home from Currie to Haddington and when Wendy Alexander calls it a day he becomes Labour leader in the parliament. Talk about ups and downs.
Wednesday 30 March
Annabel joins me on a visit to the Edinburgh Prison Officers Social Club in Longstone and I congratulate her on her performance. She has a real spring in her step and her confidence will have soared as a resuilt. Against the backdrop of HMP Edinburgh we display a Monopoly card illustrating the SNP’s get out jail free policy on automatic early release and the abolition of short-term sentences to which we are strongly opposed – although the broadcast media are more interested in council tax!
So be it. We can talk about that as well.
Securing the long-term future of the social club – which has 1,600 members, most of whom live locally – is a big issue for me. Basically the Scottish Prison Service wants to sell all the surplus land surrounding the jail for housing, including the site on which the club stands and where it has been for over 50 years.
In 2009, the club came within days of eviction and it was only at the last minute that I finally persuaded the SNP government to grant the first in what has become a series of short-term leases. The original land deal has fallen through and a new valuation and feasibility study has been commissioned. I want the government to sell the site at valuation to the club, which has the means to buy the land and thereby secure its future.
Thursday 31 March
We are all piling in to the story about the SNP government mounting legal challenges in the Court of Session. They are trying to prevent the release of a memo from the government’s chief economist on the subject of local income tax – a SNP policy dropped by John Swinney in 2009. He did this on the pretext that there was no parliamentary majority for it, although it had been comprehensively trashed by then as unworkable, undesirable and not properly costed. We expect the memo to say much the same, but in politer civil service-speak.
Another success for Annabel – this time in the Scotsman leaders’ debate. As ever, she engages with her audience and gets the message across. And, needless to say, she wasted no time in getting stuck in to the first minister over the aforementioned local income tax fiasco: “I smell fish, fish, fish” was the quote of the night.
Friday 1 April
Iain Duncan Smith visits my campaign HQ in Colinton and gives a short speech on welfare reform to our local activists. I admire his commitment to social justice and his desire to move people off long-term welfare dependency into meaningful and gainful employment. I was with Iain when he made his seminal visit as Tory leader to Easterhouse and Gallowgate in Glasgow, which was the birthplace of that commitment, and he now has the opportunity in government to translate his ideas into action.
We visit the local post office – one that wasn’t closed by Labour – and he talks to our postmaster about our plans for developing their business through links with credit unions. By chance, one of the customers is aware of this idea and they have a discussion about it.
After that, it’s off for a coffee in the local cafe and sit-down interviews for Iain with Ian Swanson of the Evening News and Michael Tait of the Mail on Sunday.
We are gearing up for our manifesto launch on Monday, so I spend some time at Central Office discussing the logistics and choreography of the event. When these things go well, no one notices – but boy do you hear about it when there’s a hitch. Fingers crossed.
Saturday 2 April
Relatively quiet Saturday in the constituency out and about meeting people, then spend several hours in the afternoon finishing off the text for the newspaper which will be our next delivery to homes in Pentlands. It’s a lot harder writing short tabloid-style articles than lengthy pieces.
As politicians, we have all been on the wrong end of news stories and complain when they are not written as we would like. At the same time, you have to admire the talents of journalists who can rattle off several hundred readable words at the drop of a hat when up against a tight print deadline and reduce complex issues down to the essentials. I’ve learnt a lot about how to do this in my time as an MSP, but it still doesn’t come that easily.
Sunday 3 April
Mother’s Day. Sheila and I go to the Botanics for brunch with her daughter Catriona and husband Mark and their two children Ruari and Megan aged three and 18 months respectively. Mark is a Kiwi and Ruari was born in Auckland.
Once he has finished going in and out the automatic doors a few times, Ruari goes straight to the giant display map of the world and points out New Zealand to me. I am impressed – this is a boy who hasn’t given up on being an All Black.
It’s a beautiful day and we have a stroll in the gardens to work off the full Scottish breakfast. The Botanics is one of my favourite places in Edinburgh and the gardens are full of visitors. However, the election is never far away and I make it home in time to do a TV and radio interview about the latest opinion poll and a preview of our manifesto launch.
After that, I sit back and watch the Edinburgh derby on TV and delight in the Hearts equaliser before going off to visit my Mum for afternoon tea. She is going on 88 but still manages to live independently, which is a blessing.
Early to bed for an early rise and the second full week of the campaign. It has been an eventful start.
Monday 4 April
Up at six to drive through to Glasgow for interview on Good Morning Scotland with Gary Robertson about our manifesto. Lots of questions about money, so just as well we have all the costings nailed down thanks to the prodigious efforts of our finance expert Derek Brownlee.
Then it’s next door to the Glasgow Science Centre for the launch itself. Very good location, even if it’s a really dreich day. We start with a brief for our candidates who have joined us from all over Scotland as well as local activists, then it’s on to the presentation itself, for which there is an excellent media turnout from the broadcasters and the press.
I act as MC and introduce Annabel, who delivers a spirited and comprehensive summary of our programme. She then joins a panel with Murdo Fraser and Derek Brownlee to respond to questions from the press, which I referee. No real problems. Somebody makes the mistake of asking about money, no doubt hoping to catch us out, but in reply is given a blizzard of statistics from Derek, quoting from his 50-page financial brief which we have published alongside the manifesto, and we hear no more on that subject.
The secret is always to give an authoritative detailed answer. If you do, you rarely get asked twice.
Wedge questions focus on apparent differences between the Conservatives north and south of the Border. Much beloved of journalists, they are designed to enable them to write stories about Tory splits and are now more popular than ever since David Cameron became PM.
Murdo deals with a wedge question about why we are not following the health reforms down south and explains the different organisational basis of the NHS in Scotland which makes them inappropriate. However it’s also a chance to emphasise what we would do for the health service in Scotland with the money being wasted by the SNP on free prescriptions for all.
Another wedge question at the end. Why no reference to the Big Society in our manifesto? Annabel does a brilliant job on this – Scotland is our Big Society, she declares, and our manifesto is all about making life better for Scots. Cue applause from the audience and end of press conference.
We are pleased with the launch and return to Edinburgh HQ in a positive mood. I do a BBC radio interview for Scotland at 10 with Sarah Paterson on the manifesto to bookend the day broadcastwise, and that’s it. I am a tired Tim, but the broadcasters have given us fair and favourable coverage and I expect positives in the papers tomorrow – so all in all a good day.
Tuesday 5 April
What did I say about the misfortunes of others? Poor Tavish now has to cope with his former MSP John Farquhar Munro backing wee Eck for first minister, and this competes with our launch for press coverage.
Overall, it’s favourable and we are commended for being honest about the affordability of freebies such as prescriptions and bus travel for everyone over 60 in the current climate. The key question is will voters prefer our realism, by contrast with the more comfortable delusions which others will promote, in sufficient numbers to increase our tally of seats?
Is honesty the best policy? Does bravery have its own reward? We shall see.
Meantime, it’s another early start for me as I do a business breakfast hosted by Grayling, a public affairs company. Willie Rennie is there for the Lib Dems prior to going off to their manifesto launch, David Whitton for Labour and Jim Eadie for the SNP. David has made the transition from being Donald Dewar’s spin doctor to a MSP in his own right and is one of Labour’s more assured performers.
We are asked to speculate about the outcome of the election and whether a minority government was preferable to a majority coalition. David recalls the 1999 post-election negotiations between Labour and the Lib Dems and contrasts their thick dossier of policy proposals with Donald’s back-of-the-envelope list of what he saw as the key points.
The point is that we shouldn’t expect an immediate outcome and it may be a week or more before the new government emerges. I agree.
Last time, the SNP got an easy ride once they won the largest number of seats by 47 to 46 over Labour. Alex Salmond did a deal with the two Greens and won the first minister ballot with 49 votes. This time there will be a lot more in the mix in terms of a policy programme for a new government and how we deal with the financial situation and public sector reform.
Wednesday 6 April
“Scottish Labour will abolish the failed Scottish Labour.” When political parties are writing in their own manifesto that they will abolish themselves, two feelings take over. The first is to join in the fun and laugh wholeheartedly. The second is to sympathise with your opponents, curse the proof-reader and think “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I was once at a poster launch where the unveiling revealed completely the wrong ad. We’ve all been there and you have to feel for the poor sowel who will carry the can for that one, and for Iain Gray who becomes the laughing stock as a result of the error just at a time when he needs a bit of gravitas. Still, we had a few giggles at that one.
One word was missing from the Labour manifesto, though – sorry. After all, they created the financial mess and the crisis facing our country.
It’s easy to blow holes in this manifesto. Iain Gray says he will freeze council tax – but repeatedly voted against a freeze. He says university can be free – but his spokesman had said a graduate contribution was “inevitable”.
He says he will keep the 1,000 extra police delivered by the Conservatives – but promised none four years ago and voted against the budgets which delivered them.
It’s a copycat somersaulting manifesto of uncosted wishes and we waste no time in pointing that out.
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